His ad on
Within a week, he pocketed a very real
Fortunately for Quirino, now 26, the transaction was a smooth one. He got his money, graduated with a degree in graphic design, and went on to cofound the popular-culture blog Geekadelphia.
But the murkier side of virtual worlds — where incidents of theft and fraud, along with assault and bullying, are on the rise — increasingly has real-world cops and courts intervening. Their involvement hasn't ended the confusion.
If someone steals your virtual
"Can you go and live your life ... in a fantasy
environment and then come back and live normally in the off-line world
without interplay between those two existences?" asks
In other words, can what happens in World of Warcraft stay in World of Warcraft?
While online justice is still an evolving concept, some judges are finding that virtual assets fall under property law. Accusations of physical assaults on avatars still are mainly handled within the virtual world — meaning the players patrol criminal behavior — though these cases, too, are getting attention from real-world police.
Virtual worlds, for the uninitiated, are online, interactive, simulated social spheres where animated avatars substitute for real people and the players determine the course of play. Unlike a traditional online game, virtual worlds also are "persistent," Lastowka says, meaning that life goes on, even if you are not logged on. You may be sleeping, but people still go out for drinks, work, buy and sell goods — and commit crimes. Logged on or not, you don't have control over everything that could affect your avatar.
The audience for virtual worlds is relatively small,
albeit enthusiastic. About 8 percent of online teens and 4 percent of
online adults visit virtual worlds, says the
The best-known example is medieval-themed World of Warcraft, with about 12 million players in
Many have story lines featuring grueling battles between factions. By fulfilling quests, a player gains prestige, power, and the world's currency (often convertible into dollars), which can be used to buy coveted objects — armor or weapons, for example — that are no more than images created through computer code.
Still, the stakes can be high.
The items' in-game value, and the amount of time and
money needed to acquire them through playing, have led to a booming
real-world marketplace on
In some cases, these objects generate more than just a healthy obsession, as illustrated by the story of Qiu Chengwei of
In 2005, he was deeply involved in the Legend of
Mir, a world where he had acquired the magical Dragon Saber, valued in
real money at nearly
Qiu took his case to the police, who claimed a theft couldn't have occurred if the item didn't physically exist. So Qiu went to his friend's house with a knife and killed him.
Committing murder over a virtual object is extreme, but placing value on an intangible item is not. Lastowka says lots of things we pay for in life can't be touched. He likens it to seeing a film: "You're not getting anything more tangible than from virtual goods."
Not everyone believes virtual crimes merit real-life angst.
Although Philadelphian Joe Osborne, 22, hasn't been a victim of virtual wrongdoing in the five years he has played World of Warcraft, he knows gamers who lost all their "possessions" when hackers breached their account and took everything.
If he were victimized,
"I understand you're paying a monthly fee and putting the time into it," he says, "but is that really worth the legal fees or the legal vindication? To me, it's just a video game."
For others, the goal is to win at all costs. (That's probably the case with the gamer who spent
But it was inevitable that some of these incidents would wind up in front of flesh-and-blood judges.
In the case of
"The whole virtual real estate concept was real interesting to me," said Bragg, 51, from his home in
He says he did nothing wrong when he bought thousands of dollars of virtual land in Second Life auctions.
"They froze my account, deleted all that stuff, and didn't even give me back my U.S. money," says Bragg.
So he went to court for reimbursement of his losses. In 2007, U.S. District Judge
In cases of online assaults, finding justice can be trickier.
Recently, German and Belgian police investigated
allegations of rape and abuse between Second Life avatars, and
authorities arrested a man in
In 1993, writer
Back then, the world Dibbell wrote about — and therefore the assault — was text-based, without images and avatars. After one player graphically described a sexual assault he committed against female characters, an outraged virtual community demanded action, and the perpetrator's account was deleted. (The player simply created a new one.)
Dibbell, a contributing editor for
"When you try to map it onto law," he says, "it shuts down what's interesting about what's going on in those places — the ambiguity."
But more mixing of the two worlds is inevitable.
"I don't see any turning back," Lastowka says.
(c) 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer's World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.